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Fox Searchlight Pictures
“Beasts” is a first for director Benh Zeitlin and actress Quvenzhane Wallis.

Director, unlikely star build fanciful ‘Beasts’

The wondrous “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is set in a flood-ravaged, impoverished Louisiana island where a single father teaches his 6-year-old daughter, Hushpuppy, to fend for herself.

In her imaginative view, their hardscrabble village is a magical place, despite the rising waters that threaten to drown it. Confident beyond her years, the little heroine is mostly fearless, even staring down the mastodon-like cattle that she fantasizes have broken free from collapsing glaciers.

“Beasts” was the out-of-left-field sensation of this year’s Sundance film festival, rightly earning the Grand Jury Prize. At Cannes, it won the Camera d’Or for the best debut film and the international critics’ prize. The film opened Friday at Cinema Center in Fort Wayne.

This touching, inspiring first feature from 29-year-old director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin seems on track to earn a cluster of Oscar nominations.

One near-certainty is a best-actress nod for Quvenzhane Wallis (often called “Nazie”), the film’s entrancing young star, who, like most of the cast, had never acted before.

“Beasts” wasn’t in its final form until two days before its Sundance triumph in January, and earlier drafts hadn’t connected with viewers in the way Zeitlin hoped, he said in a phone interview.

When it took the competition’s top prize, “It was difficult to process what was happening. … You just had to close your eyes and let the roller coaster take you.”

The Queens-born filmmaker had a hand in most aspects of the low-budget production, even co-composing the Cajun-flavored soundtrack.

“But it was like an athletic event. We had this whole team, and we set these really crazy goals for ourselves without really knowing if we could execute them,” he said. “Before shooting, it’s like being at the starting line. Once it goes, you’re really trying to survive.”

The production broke three cardinal rules of filmmaking: Never work with children, water or animals. Zeitlin credits the mythic environment of Louisiana with helping those unpredictable elements mesh into a lyrical fable.

“In Louisiana, you do feel at moments like you’re just being taken care of by some sort of invisible force that gets you out of situations,” he said.

When his star got cranky or the current moved his camera in the wrong direction or animals wouldn’t cooperate, that created spontaneous moments that energized the movie in ways that no pre-visualized shot could equal.

“Beasts” was adapted from a stage production, with Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar collaborating on the script for a year and a half.

While the script was taking shape, Zeitlin looked at almost 4,000 kids in the course of a year. When the 5-year-old Wallis walked in, “she changed the entire shape of the film. We never expected a person that young could have the kind of strength and focus and fearlessness that she brought to the character.”

For her strong, loving, erratic father, Zeitlin had planned on casting a professional. In the end, he chose another mesmerizing novice. Dwight Henry owned the bakery next to the casting office.

“When we were doing auditions, we would go in there and get pastries. It was like our snack joint. He runs that place like it’s a community center. Everybody knows Mr. Henry and the bakery.

“He was the only non-professional ever considered for the role, and he just haunted us. And when we brought him into the same room as her, their chemistry kind of exploded.”

Given the subject of the film, it was essential to build the cast from local residents, Zeitlin said.

“This is a film about living in a place where existence is precarious. … It’s this feeling that your home, your history and your culture could be wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Having lived there since 2006, he has observed Louisianans’ “glorious independence born out of incredible bravery.”

“In a lot of places in America, we teach children to be afraid in order to keep them safe. I really admire the way that Louisiana teaches bravery. It allows you to not be controlled by fear. It creates resilient, courageous people.”

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